‘We need to remember the radical spirit of these women who took control of their lives so others could too.’
The above quotation from the Lesbiana description pretty much sums up the importance of telling the stories of radical lesbians in the 80s. Lesbiana was the opener film in the London Feminist Film Festival and was sold out… twice. The panel discussion after the screening lasted for almost an hour, and I am sure it would have lasted much longer if not for the constraints of time that evening.
The popularity of the film shows that a crowd of some three hundred women (with a few men among them), of various ages and backgrounds, seemed to have felt the resonance between the stories of lesbians in the film and their own experiences as (lesbian) feminists. Having this in mind, it made me think that although Lesbiana is a documentary, depicting moments of the lesbian feminist movement in the 80s, and in that sense it is a historical film (or rather, herstorical), at the same time it is a film that is contemporary and embedded in the present in that it raises questions still as relevant today as they were back then.
Whether you are for or against radical separatist lesbian politics is not so important. What is most important is that Lesbiana has the power to trigger discussions between women who are generations apart and may have rather different understandings of what feminisms mean, and what there is to be done for a lesbian community. The director Myriam Fougère shared her wonder and joy, saying: ‘There was much discussions afterwards…Like in the old days…Wonderful to experience this in 2012!!!!’
The lesbian herstory is ever-present and Lesbiana is one of the rare attempts to document the stories of lesbians, shed light on their involvement in feminist struggles and prevent them from being excluded from the pages of an official history. Linda Bellos, a gay rights activist and one of the panelists, noted that it is too often that lesbians disappear from the pages of history (even the feminist ones) and are simply written out of it despite the input they had in bringing about social changes. The visibility of lesbians is still an unsolved problem today with many using the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ and primarily referring to gay men. Thus, homosexual women in patriarchal societies are experiencing a double oppression—first, as objectified women and then as women whose sexuality is deemed impossible. In the popular imagination, a lesbian is a woman who has sexual relations with other women but does this only to please the man. In other words, in popular imagination a lesbian does not exist.
For many young activists, lesbian separatism (the focus of Myriam Fougère’s film) may seem more like the root of the problem of invisibility, rather than a solution to it. I am a middle-way person and I don’t see it either as the problem or the solution. I appreciate and welcome the various forms of activism we have. As Myriam mentioned in the discussion, today it may seem like separatism remains only in our heads—it is mental and not so much physical (although, actual separatist communities still exist in different parts of the world). In my opinion, this mental separatism is ever-present in any community that gathers together on the basis of some similarity or identity and forms alliances with like-minded people. There is nothing radical about that, although, some would say that it is detrimental in that such communities become small ghettoes or, depending on one’s attitude, comfortable bubbles to live in.
Here, it is important to say that, of course, there is no single universal lesbian experience and different women experience or reflect on the impact of homophobia, compulsory heteronormativity, or male oppression in ways that may be entirely dissimilar. Thus, the need (or the lack of a need) to withdraw from society cannot be generally characterised as either solution or problem. For some it will be the problem, for others – the solution.
This brings me to the question of distance. In the film artist Suzanne Boisvert says that
‘…if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. You have to find where it is that you are alienated…So where is it? How did we internalize this world that we now reject?’
Why did this quote make me think of distance? Because to separate is to become distant or withdraw from whatever you are separating yourself from. And I think that withdrawing is a necessary condition for self-reflection. One of the main questions in Lesbiana is: What do we want as lesbian women? Sometimes we are so immersed in our surroundings and our desires are so socially conditioned, that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to separate our own wishes from the wishes imposed on us by societal expectations. In this regard, lesbian separatism is a radical attempt to re-imagine ourselves, to detect the impositions brought upon us by others and to build communities based on very different principles than those we have been taught all our lives. It is to detect and understand where it is that we are alienated and how it happened that we internalized the world we oppose ourselves to.
At the end of the day, every single one of us is the very society and societies we live in; culture cannot be entirely externalized. At the same time, however, it can become frustrating to live as a homosexual in a world primarily ‘designed’ for heterosexual people. To imagine and to create a community where such compromise is not necessary could be a truly liberating experience. Despite separatist communities having a limited impact on society at large, more general awareness of such communities has a subversive potential in that they are examples of alternatives. They demonstrate the possibility of community for people who feel alienated or who were born on the ‘wrong’ side of heteronormativity.
I personally want to thank Myriam Fougère and all the women in the film for sharing their experiences and thoughts, and continuing to inspire young lesbian feminists like myself! And special thanks to Anna Read for making that evening. Finally, thanks to the London Feminist Film Festival for making it happen!
Agne Bagociute: I did: immigrated to UK from Lithuania, attempted a degree in philosophy, was a goth, worked in a factory. I do: write songs and sing in a band, study Tibetan and Religion, have six younger siblings. I am: a queer, a lesbian, anarcho-feminist, an amateur and a poser.